Sunday, January 03, 2010
The old wineskin of the institutional church
My wife and I were listening to the parable of the wineskins the other night and got to talking about the universality of this concept.
He also told them a parable: "No one tears a piece from a new garment and puts it on an old garment. If he does, he will tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, 'The old is good.'" (Luke 5:36-39)
Jesus is not speaking here of the church. I recognize that but I also think that this passage has application beyond the immediate context because the truth is universal. The Reformation sought to do this very thing, trying to pour New Testament Christianity into the old wineskin of Rome. I fear that most of the efforts at reformation then and now have failed for the same reason. We keep trying to use old wineskins and they keep bursting and we start all over.
What we need is a new wineskin for the church. We find the pattern and principles for this new wineskin in the New Testament if we take the time to look. I also think that we will find that it is not feasible to try to find a "good church" among the traditional churches and try to see it reformed. The old wineskin of tradition will simply not hold the New Testament church. Something Dave Black wrote in The Jesus Paradigm says something very similar:
I suspect that church institutions as they are now known are incapable of thoroughgoing renewal. It is my view that new church plants are the most likely bodies to reflect early Christianity rather than the proud establishments of Christendom. (The Jesus Paradigm, pg. 61)
I would amend that slightly: Either new church plants or existing communities that reflect New Testament church practice. It seems that doctrines like soteriology are more malleable and more subject to correction than doctrines of ecclesiology because when it comes to Christian living and discipleship the world gets at least equal billing with the Word. That may be harsh to say but it is lived out in church after church around America. If Christians are living in a sacrificial community already, that is a great place to start.
Dr. Black's greater point though holds true. It may be too late (by hundreds of years) to reform established Protestantism. There are too few people in any given church that are willing to go outside of the bounds of the traditional church (if there are any). Something far more radical may be required. Will we have the courage of conviction to take that step in the face of opposition and scorn from outside and inside the church?